Tuesday, April 21, 2009

'raised by a village'

This post on the acknowledgements that poets feel compelled to make in their books comes at a time when I have been thinking about another book I'm reading. But first from the post on Harriet:

Poets who haven’t had a lot of success and thus maybe feel that they have less to be cool about – these poets will draw attention to magazine credits, prizes, and fellowships by isolating the acknowledgements on its own page. Of course, these may also just be conscientious people who care about giving the deserving their due. Some will even go on for two or three pages, thanking their editors, publishers, professors, first readers, first sexual partners – anyone who ever shared, like, a ZIP code with the poems. Such poets are generous, thoughtful citizens. Good members of their community or support network. They will sometimes insist that their community or support network dramatically improved their poems, and that the lingering weaknesses are all theirs. They may be right. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the quality of poems that were raised by a village, poems that seem to have needed so much help from so many hands. Gratitude is good, but a poet who did her job in the first place probably wouldn’t - probably shouldn’t - need to be too grateful to anyone, let alone a vast, pandemic syndicate of friends, relatives, and editors.

Of course, most journals ask that poets acknowledge where their work first appeared. It's the rest of the people and sources and all other inspirations being acknowledged that gives me an 'ouch' moment.

I was thinking of this while reading Abraham Verghese's first novel (his other two books were memoirs), Cutting for Stone. If I have time, there's be more about this eventually, but one thing that puzzled me was the seven page acknowledgments followed by a page and a half of bibliography and I wondered if such a thing was necessary in fiction.

Verghese has given everyone their due: someone who showed him a copy of some book he's referred to; stray phrases that he has used that are from putative toasts by surgeons, poets ('The line "I owe you the sight of morning" is by W.S.Merwin from the poem "To the Surgeon Kevin Lin", originally published in The New Yorker. A limited-edition print of this poem prepared by Carolee Campbell of Ninja Press and signed by William Merwin hangs in my office.' Page 536, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese, Random House India, 2009), travel writers, and someone he'd like to acknowledge but cannot remember and 'would love to attribute to a source'.

I'm not really complaining. I find the whole seven pages very revealing and will need to go back to his other two books to see how he handled acknowledgments back then. But those were memoirs; this is fiction. And once again, this large, telling section demands some thought on the part of the reader. Of course writers acknowledge their sources, especially if it's a question of first-person accounts in recent history, or descriptions of events they have drawn upon in their narrative.

What I find unusual is the attribution Verghese has made to individual uses of (para)phrases from the works of others as if the substance of the fiction would collapse if the scaffolding of the sources were kept invisible.

I am also imagining a time when novels will once again return to the three volume format, where only the first volume is fiction and the other two are hefty annotations and elucidations that no one but a fan or a fanatic (or an undergrad) will read.


sumana001 said...

'Acknowledge the source', we are always taught, as if we were born plagiarists! Anxiety of quotation marks, you think?

kbpm said...

i like sources. but in fiction? nevertheless.

km said...

It's the rest of the people and sources and all other inspirations being acknowledged that gives me an 'ouch' moment.That guy who designed the sound for Slumdog thanked the Ancient Indian Civilization for inventing "Om" and "silence" in his Oscar speech. Priceless crock.

There was a bit of a storm in the rock world couple years ago when Bob Dylan covered "Rollin' and tumblin'" but failed to "acknowledge" the original writer(s). I hope Dylan thanks the inventors of the English Alphabet on his next album.

//That Verghese novel did not get very good reviews here. What did you think?

Space Bar said...

sumana: well, of course we're all plagiarists! Whether's we were born that way or not is moot.

kbpm: yes, i know. i'm a sucker for them as well. will probably be very happy if i find a book that's been someone's source and will instantly want to read it. so ack pages make me happy. was just taken aback by the extensiveness of it here.

km: i'm in a slightly rough patch where the narrative's sagging a bit but basically i like very much: all those surgeons cutting away and all that latin.

(it hasn't got too many reviews here either.)

equivocal said...

Despite some notable exceptions and the persistent but historically inaccurate myth of poetic genius/solitude, I really do believe that a poem is raised by a village / community. That's the one of the only explanations I can find for why Indian English poetry is so terrible and Irish poetry is, on the whole, so good.

Space Bar said...

...I really do believe that a poem is raised by a village / community.equivocal: I'd say any writing is, but there are two things here: 1. what constitutes the village? only actual, physical presences, or any kind of community/influence? in this case, you'd have to consider kolatkar's wild, energising list; and 2. how do you know to ackowledge influence and why, when to acknowledge everything would be not just impossible but also absurd, would you do it?

the other reason true acknowledgement is impossible is because the language has its own lineage, apart from the consciousness of the writer. it's revealing and actually quite touching to see writers attempt to give this huge thing some shape.

equivocal said...

I'm personally not talking so much about "influences" as such here--I'm talking about actual community, a live ecology, if you will, of active, critical, sympathetic, rigorous readers and writers. That is to say, for Kolatkar, not his G.G. Belli or even Tukaram, but the people encircled around his death bed-- Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla, Dilip Chitre, Gieve Patel, or the painter Bandu Waze who apparently accompanied him on a long walk through Western Maharashtra but is not mentioned in Kolatkar's poems about the incident.

When a writer acknowledges these people she is not boasting about the depth of her erudition or the arduousness and intricacy of her research, and not necessarily trying to win favour as is bitterly assumed; rather, she is probably acknowledging a real debt and revealing how a work comes to be authored, working against the myth of solitary genius.

Of course there are exceptions, as I say, Emily Dickinson being one. But that is rarer than what we would assume.

I certainly don't think it's necessary or ethical for her to acknowledge anything at all, of course, and I agree that true acknowledgement is impossible, but this kind of acknowledgement needn't be considered desperate or infra dig, should the writer opt to do it...?

As for what Verghese has done, it appears to be combination--a bit of debt acknowledgement, a bit of meticulousness, and a bit of boasting too.

Falstaff said...

I'm talking about actual community, a live ecology, if you will, of active, critical, sympathetic, rigorous readers and writers.equivocal: I agree entirely, though I think what matters is not so much whether the community exists but how it interacts. The presence of a strong community could just as easily lead to groupthink, with like-minded people with similar priors feeding off each other's approval to create a morass of self-satisfaction. To that extent, a hostile rather than sympathetic 'community' may actually lead to better writing (this is the reason, I think, that Indian English poetry is so terrible but Latin American poetry is so interesting). So the really useful community may be the people the writer would never dream of including in his / her acknowledgments. And a long list of acknowledgments could equally be a sign of extreme cronyism as of robust exchange. In both cases the gratitude would be genuine, of course, but in the former the gratitude would be counter-productive.

Space Bar said...

equivocal/falstaff: Just curious - how do imagine this community of indian poets working/writing/critiquing together? do we have common concerns? do we know to talk around our differences? (i assume you're talking about ipe here and not works of translation).

Cheshire Cat said...

Poems are fathered by tradition. They are meant to go out into the wild - may the she-wolf find them.

km said...

They are meant to go out into the wild - may the she-wolf find them.Why does it sound like something a character from a Will Ferrell movie would say?

Falstaff said...

SB: Personally, I imagine two complementary processes - one where a group of like-minded people who have attained some level of proficiency as poets and are genuinely interested in pushing themselves further work together by offering thoughtful and critical feedback on each other's work, recommending books to read, discussing the theory and practice of poetry, etc; the other where the larger literary community evolves a genuine culture of criticism where new published work is subjected to detailed and aggressive criticism by people who may / may not agree with what the poet / writer is trying to do, but have the knowledge and ability to provide a true critique. Which is to say, I imagine a 'community' where there is a lot more infighting, and a lot more negative reviews, and no one, but no one, plays 'nice'.

Space Bar said...

cat: that sounds so...romantic - all mary shelley and all.

km: :-)

falsie: see, that sounds impossibly ideal. what actually happens is, everyone gets insecure about their own abilities and the opportunities they think might not be available to them if there's too much sharing of information. in the interests of keeping things safe and on the surface, everyone plays nice and keep their true feelings under wraps. this becomes a habit and so these feelings stay largely unexamined and no one really knows what they think about anyone's work or have any real theories about poetry except to say everyone's world view is unique.

i'm exaggerating, of course. i'm sure there are people exchanging work who are being as critical as they should be, but only in small pockets. it's the larger conversations around poetry that is absent and that i think is necessary. less wariness and more confidence, even to fail! cast your bread upon the waters, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Space Bar said...

Falstaff/Equivocal: Apropos of this, do read Aditi's take on reviewing poetry.

Cheshire Cat said...

km: Surely Ferrell was raised by a she-wolf? There's no other explanation, I'm afraid.